Earlier in my career, I was told two facts that I thought to be false: First graders can’t do research, because they aren’t old enough; and if facts are needed for a nonfiction text, the students can just make them up. Teachers I knew went along with this misinformation, as it seemed to make teaching and learning easier. I always felt differently, and now—having returned to teaching first grade 14 years after beginning my career with that age group—I wanted to prove that first graders can and should learn how to research.
A lot has changed over the years. Not only has the science of reading given teachers a much better understanding of how to teach reading skills, but we now exist in a culture abundant in information and misinformation. It’s imperative that we teach academically honest research skills to students as early as possible.
Use a Familiar Resource, and Pair it with a Planned Unit
How soon do you start research in first grade? Certainly not at the start of the year with the summer lapse in skills and knowledge and when new students aren’t yet able to read. By December of this school year, skills had either been recovered or established sufficiently that I thought we could launch into research. This also purposely coincided with a unit of writing on nonfiction—the perfect pairing.
The research needed an age-related focus to make it manageable, so I chose animals. I thought about taking an even safer route and have one whole class topic that we researched together, so that students could compare notes and skills. I referred back to my days working in inquiry-based curriculums (like the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program) and had students choose which animal to study. Our school librarian recommended that we use Epic because the service has an abundance of excellent nonfiction animal texts of different levels.
Teach the Basics for Organized Research
I began with a conversation about academic honesty and why we don’t just copy information from books. We can’t say this is our knowledge if we do this; it belongs to the author. Instead, we read and learn. Then, we state what we learned in our own words. Once this concept is understood, I model how to do this by creating a basic step-by-step flowchart taught to me by my wife—a longtime first-grade and kindergarten teacher and firm believer in research skills.
- Read one sentence at a time.
- Turn the book over or the iPad around.
- Think about what you have learned. Can you remember the fact? Is the fact useful? Is it even a fact?
- If the answer is no, reread the sentence or move onto the next one.
- If the answer is yes, write the fact in your own words. Don’t worry about spelling. There are new, complex vocabulary words, so use your sounding-out/stretching-out strategies just like you would any other word. Write a whole sentence on a sticky note.
- Place the sticky note in your graphic organizer. Think about which section it goes in. If you aren’t sure, place it in the “other facts” section.
The key to collecting notes is the challenging skill of categorizing them. I created a graphic organizer that reflected the length and sections of the exemplar nonfiction text from our assessment materials for the writing unit. This meant it had five pages: an introduction, “what” the animal looks like, “where” the animal lives, “how” the animal behaved, and a last page for “other facts” that could become a general conclusion.
Our district’s literacy expert advised me not to hand out my premade graphic organizer too soon in this process because writing notes and categorizing are two different skills. This was my intention, but I forgot the good advice and handed out the organizer right away. This meant dedicating time for examining and organizing notes in each combined writing and reading lesson. A lot of one-on-one feedback was needed for some students, while others flourished and could do this work independently. The result was that the research had a built-in extension for those students who were already confident readers.
Focus on What Students Need to Practice
Research is an essential academic skill but one that needs to be tackled gradually. I insisted that my students use whole sentences rather than words or phrases because they’re at the stage of understanding what a complete sentence is and need regular practice. In this work, there’s no mention of citation language and vetting sources; in the past, I’ve introduced those concepts to students in fourth grade and used them regularly with my fifth-grade students. Finding texts that span the reading skill range of a first-grade class is a big enough task.
For some of the key shared scientific vocabulary around science concepts, such as animal groups (mammals, etc.) or eating habits (carnivore, etc.), I created class word lists, having first sounded out the words with the class and then asked students to attempt spelling them in their writing.
The Power of Research Can Facilitate Student Growth
I was delighted with the results of the research project. In one and a half weeks, every student had a graphic organizer with relevant notes, and many students had numerous notes. With my fourth- and fifth-grade students, I noticed that one of the biggest difficulties for them was taking notes and writing them in a way that showed a logical sequence. Therefore, we concluded our research by numbering the notes in each section to create a sequential order.
This activity took three lessons and also worked for my first graders. These organized notes created an internal structure that made the next step in the writing process, creating a first draft of their nonfiction teaching books, so much easier.
The overall result was that first graders were able to truly grasp the power of research and gathering accurate facts. I proved that young children can do this, especially when they work with topics that already fascinate them. Their love of learning motivated them to read higher-level and more sophisticated texts than they or I would normally pick, further proving how interest motivates readers to embrace complexity.